Simcoe County history

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Nicol Hugh Baird never lived in Simcoe County, but each time he came through, he changed things for the better. In fact, some of the Trent-Severn Waterway owes its existence to Baird.

In 1833, Sir John Colborne, then lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, asked Baird to explore the possibility of a more direct route connecting Lake Huron and Lake Ontario. The route also needed to be protected from the United States. The War of 1812 was still weighing heavily on the minds of those in government, and a path connecting Ontario’s important lines of communication on the lower and upper Great Lakes was a top priority – if it was affordable.

Baird had been working on the Rideau Canal with Lt.-Col John By. Baird, born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1796, was from a family of engineers – one of his uncles designed and built the first steamship in Russia, and his father was a canal engineer in Scotland.

While working for By, Baird designed and received a patent on a new style of suspension bridge that addressed some challenges Baird faced specific to bridge building in Ontario.

It was with this background he was offered the challenge of determining the feasibility of a system of canals connecting lakes Ontario and Huron in 1833.

Baird surveyed the land and lakes from Lake Ontario, through the Kawarthas and Lake Simcoe, Lake Couchiching and Orillia’s future location. Here, he examined a number of alternatives, including one linking through a route along Highway 12 north to Coldwater and the other following the Severn River.

Baird submitted a report on making a navigable route from Lake Ontario to Rice Lake with 34 locks, each 134 feet long and 34 feet wide, with 17 dams to increase water levels – price: $1,167,236 – and it would be complete in four years. Baird suggested tolls for use of the canal could help pay for it.

Colborne checked the area. Taking almost a week, he travelled essentially the whole route from Lake Huron, overland to where Orillia would be one day, across Lake Simcoe, the Talbot River and a number of smaller lakes, by steamer on Rice Lake, then by stagecoach from Rice Lake to York (now Toronto). He gave the whole thing a positive review.

Baird was hired to prepare a new report on the western side of the system, from Rice Lake to Lake Huron.

By September 1835, Baird was ready with his new report. Another 32 locks and a baker’s dozen dams would get the job done with a price tag of $1,310,340, bringing the total cost of the project to $2,477,757.

Baird knew there were many other projects calling for cash, so he also offered cheaper alternatives. He came up with an idea that foresaw the equivalent of modern container shipping. Short railways would connect some of the lakes using specially designed rail cars that fit on specially designed barges to haul cargo short distances, removing the need for some of the expensive canals and locks. The savings would be $1.5 million or more than half the overall cost. With the submission of his report, he also purchased stock in the Cobourg railway.

The next year, he was given the green light to go ahead, as superintending engineer.

Work went slowly. And fighting the 1837 rebellion reduced the province’s available money. In 1841, the province decided to go with Baird’s cheaper ‘Plan B’ with the combined canal-rail method linking lakes Ontario and Huron. Rice Lake was connected to Lake Ontario by road. This new version of the canal/rail/road system was completed in the fall of 1843. Baird was also considered for overseeing the Welland Canal, but his fees were too high. However, he was hired to prepare a report on the project, while still working on the Trent-Severn Waterway. He was a busy guy, also overseeing Cobourg harbour improvements, Whitby harbour construction, surveying the Cobourg-Peterborough rail line, constructing the Presqu’ile Point Lighthouse and other sundry work.

While all this was going on, Baird’s busy engineer brain was working away on steamboats, which he recognized were the future.

Baird had also crossed paths with William Newton Fowell. You may remember from an earlier column Fowell had used a steamboat based in Penetanguishene to fight off revolutionaries during the 1837 rebellion when the rebels reached Prescott, Ont. At the Battle of the Windmill, Fowell, commanding the 150-ton war steamer Experiment, faced off against two larger pirate steamers, the United States and the Paul Pry, stopping them from trying to capture the town. The rebels did land a force at the lighthouse (the little steamer could only do so much and the rebels had at least five vessels) and, under the command of Nils von Schoultz, they took over the six-storey stone lighthouse. But Fowell prevented the rebels from receiving any more support or supplies and helped shell the lighthouse from his steamer. The rebels surrendered.

Fowell had been promoted and given command of a small fleet of steamers, including the Mohawk, which was based in Penetanguishene along with the Experiment.

Baird, who had heard the role the steamer played, recommended all future locks be built to handle military steamers to facilitate quick movement.

But one of the challenges for the steamers was their width – the side paddle wheels made them too wide. Baird designed a side paddle wheel he called a sweep-style paddle. It was narrower than the conventional paddle but swept deeper. He was awarded another patent for this design. To try it out, Fowell gave him permission to use the Mohawk in Penetanguishene. It worked, and the military steamers were modified so they could travel through all locks, allowing for a smaller fleet to cover the same number of lakes. As a bonus, the “new” steamers were faster than the old style, and more stable.

While he was clearly successful and brilliant, Baird could be testy and didn’t always make the best business decisions for himself. When he found himself out of work for a period, he quickly ran up debt.

He was back working on road construction between Quebec and Maine in 1849 when he died.

He’s remembered today for his yeoman work on Ontario’s main canals, including the Welland, Trent-Severn and Rideau, and its roads, including those in Simcoe County. His contribution to the historical record, through his many detailed reports, is considered to be almost as important.

Tom Villemaire is the co-author of two books with Randy Richmond: Colossal Canadian Failures and Colossal Canadian Failures 2 – both about things that seemed like a good idea at the time – and writes about local history. 

Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »